With missile batteries, fleets of attack boats and stocks of naval mines, Iran can disrupt traffic through the Strait of Hormuz but probably cannot completely shut down the world’s most important oil route, military analysts say. The question for Iran’s leadership is whether it is worth the heavy price.
Trying to close the strait would bring down a powerful military response on Iran’s head from US forces in the Gulf and turn Tehran’s few remaining international allies against it.
That Iran is making such dire threats at all illustrates its alarm over new sanctions planned by the US that will target oil exports, the most vital source of revenue for its economy. Iran’s leaders shrugged off years of past sanctions by the US and United Nations, mocking them as ineffective. But if it cannot sell its oil, its already-suffering economy will be sent into a tailspin.
“It would be very, very difficult for Iran even to impede traffic for a significant period of time,” said Jonathan Rue, a senior research analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “They don’t have the ability to effectively block the strait.”
What the Iranians can do, Rue and other analysts say, is harass traffic through the Gulf, anything from stopping tankers to outright attacks. The goal would be to panic markets, drive up shipping insurance rates and spark a rise in world oil prices enough to pressure the United States to back down on sanctions.
The strait would seem to be an easy target, a bottleneck only about 50 km across at its narrowest point between Iran and Oman. Tankers carrying one-sixth of the world’s oil supply pass through it.